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Essay

Canada by Design

Selecting Canada's capital was not an easy task. The debate raged for 20 years, until, in 1857, Queen Victoria resolved the issue by choosing Ottawa, a small town between Montréal and Toronto. Construction of the country's Parliament Buildings began in 1859. The cornerstone was laid in 1860, with considerable ceremony, by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. The building site of Parliament Hill, formerly known as Barracks Hill, is featured in a number of archival documents, such as photographs, paintings and architectural drawings.

In May 1859, a competition was launched to find architects for the Parliament Buildings; the deadline was August 1 of that same year. The 23 submissions received were evaluated in accordance with an adjudication system that awarded points in ten different categories. In the end, plans from two different architectural firms were chosen and approved by Canada's Governor General. The Gothic-Revival style drawings of Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones were used for the Centre Block and the Library; those of Thomas Stent and Augustus Laver, similar in style to the first set, were used for the East and West blocks.

Eight years later, in 1867, the year of Confederation, members of Parliament and their staffs settled in on the Hill. Public servants occupied the West Block, while the offices of the Governor General, Prime Minister and Privy Council were located in the East Block. The House of Commons, the Senate, and the Library of Parliament were housed in the Centre Block.

On the evening of February 3, 1916, a mysterious fire destroyed the Centre Block, mercifully leaving the Library intact. The raging blaze rapidly consumed the building and the interior of the central tower collapsed shortly after midnight. Architect John A. Pearson was chosen to rebuild the Centre Block. The new structure was inaugurated in 1927.

With its three buildings full of symbolism and history, Parliament Hill remains a centre of attraction for Canadians and visitors alike. Its construction on Ottawa's highest point of elevation is an event in Canadian history worthy of study. To that end, fortunately, we have the archives.

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